That License Exam Will Be Tough Enough. Don't Let Test Anxiety Make It Even Harder.

If you tend to freak out at license exam time, here’s some advice to help you settle down, focus in and earn that passing score.

Studies show that some people fear speaking in public more than they fear dying. For many water and wastewater operators, licensing exams come close to creating that level of anxiety.

It’s possible, as some will attest, to know the material through and through, yet fail the exam because of intense jitters. Fortunately, there are ways to beat exam anxiety and remove that impediment to a passing score. Here are a few tips I have gleaned from my own experience and some research.

Nerves can work in your favor. One of the best bits of advice I ever got was from a college counselor giving me a pep talk before a job interview. “If you’re not nervous,” he said, “you’re not up.” Being too anxious of course can hurt you, but so can being too casual. The right level of nerves can help you perform at your best. So embrace that quicker heart and dose of adrenaline — let them work for you.

Prepare — but not too much. Confidence is a great antidote to anxiety, and confidence comes from good preparation. On the other hand, it’s a bad idea to “cram” into the wee hours the night before the exam. If you’re sleep-deprived when you sit down in the exam room, you won’t be at your best. Study consistently over time. Take the exam when you know you’re ready. Then you won’t feel compelled to cram.

Practice. One thing that helped me in a big way in my post-college exams was answering practice questions. You get an edge from not just knowing your material, but also knowing how the questions will be structured. It’s a bit like taking your first driver’s license test in your family car, instead of one you had never driven before. You can find sample water and wastewater exam questions on the Treatment Plant Operator website at

Skip the caffeine. Your body and brain will be plenty stimulated at test time — you won’t need any chemical enhancement. Drink lots of coffee and the caffeine buzz may leave you too “wired” to focus properly on the task at hand.

Focus. Don’t worry about other people in the room around you, working away as if they know everything. Have faith in your own preparation. Concentrate on the questions.

Breathe. You can study mindfulness and various forms of meditation if you wish, but there’s a lot to be gained when under stress just by taking several long, slow, deep breaths. Studies show that this can slow down your heart rate, reduce blood pressure, decrease muscle tension and impart a sense of ease and calm.

Watch your thoughts. Henry Ford supposedly said, “Whether you think you can’t or think you can, you’re right.” Avoid thoughts such as I should have studied more and I’m not smart enough. Instead, do what elite athletes do: Imagine yourself succeeding. Picture yourself walking out of the exam room confident that you “hit it out of the park.”

Plan to reward yourself. Think of something great you’re going to do when — not if — you pass. Maybe it’s to get some tickets to a ball game, buy something you’ve wanted for a long time or take your family out for a nice dinner. Then, when it’s all over, do it!

Finally, remember this quote from Mark Twain: “I’ve suffered a great many catastrophes in my life. Most never happened.” If you’ve prepared correctly, the catastrophe you fear — exam failure — likely won’t occur. That knowledge alone should help you settle in for a positive experience and successful outcome.   


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